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The Morrison government is pledging to build a large, new naval ship that will cruise the South Pacific and help Australia’s neighbours deal with natural disasters as part of what is being seen as Australia’s “pivot” to the neighbouring region.
Fairfax Media can also reveal that the planned redevelopment of the Manus Island naval base in Papua New Guinea is widely seen within the government as having a longer-term strategic potential to allow Australian ships and even aircraft to project power well into the Pacific, where China is increasingly contesting the United States' traditional dominance.
Australian policymakers are increasingly concerned about Chinese activity in the south Pacific but are confident that Australia remains the preferred security partner of most neighbours.
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said the government’s new plans - largely unveiled in a speech by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Townsville on Thursday - included “the commitment to a large-hulled humanitarian and disaster relief vessel that would operate semi-permanently operating in the south west Pacific”.
“It could be assisting with preparations for natural disasters, resilience support, or it could respond to natural disasters as they occur,” Pyne said.
Pyne did not disclose how much it would cost nor where and when it would be built. But it would be a new vessel.
“This Pacific step-up expansion is one of the most significant decisions of the Morrison government so far and one of the most important ramp ups of our engagement in the south Pacific because it’s multidimensional,” Pyne told Fairfax Media.
It included police assistance, a diplomatic expansion and a "very large component is the defence ramp-up of activity,” he said.
“Australia has a particular responsibility for the south-west Pacific, and the rest of the world, particularly our allies and friends, expect Australia, being the largest economic power in the region, to assist the south-west Pacific countries … to protect themselves from illegal fishing, the infringement of their economic rights, potential people-smuggling, unbridled environmental damage," Pyne said.
Asked whether the new focus was aimed at combating Chinese influence,Pyne said: "We recognise that we have the largest economic heft in the region and that means we have a particular responsibility to work with the south-west Pacific family … on security for the region.
“China has an interest in the south-west Pacific, as do other countries. This Pacific step-up is not directed at any one country. It is a positive contribution to security in the region.
“We welcome other nations’ interest in the south-west Pacific … but we also regard it as our particular area of responsibility.”
Pyne said Australia could base its own patrol boats in at the Manus facility if PNG agreed.
“The investment in the Lombrum naval base would be capable of sustaining Australian security forces. We’d only do so at the invitation of the PNG defence force.
“We would do so because Manus Island is a strategically important port in the south west Pacific.”
In the immediate term, the redevelopment would be able to host smaller patrol boats.
“If future governments choose to expand that presence to other assets, that would only be capable of being done in consultation with the PNG government and at their request.”
The Manus base is widely regarded by experts as highly strategically located, giving open access to the Pacific. It could over time sustain larger frigates, aircraft and listening stations that together could provide military power as well as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.
Chief of Navy Mike Noonan, meanwhile has expanded on the way the Australian navy might use the revamped Manus Island naval base in Papua New Guinea.
While he said it would be initially a chance to help train the PNG navy and eventually carry out joint patrols, Vice Admiral Noonan left open the possibility of the navy using it for wider purposes in future.
“The strategic importance of Papua New Guinea and Manus Island in particular is not lost on any of us. [US General] Douglas MacArthur set up his headquarters there in World War II,” he said.
Of a larger presence, he said: “I wouldn’t rule it out but I think it’s going to be an opportunity to crawl, walk run over the next 10 to 20 years as the Papua New Guinean government determine how much resource they’re prepared to put into redeveloping that base and as our government sees any change to the strategic environment, how much further investment Australia might be prepared to make into that facility.
“From a navy perspective, if the facility is there, and we have a reason to use it, I can see no reason why we would not,” he said.
SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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